By Eli Yokley
Globe Staff Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
State lawmakers heard hours of heated public testimony last week on the right-to-work question in Missouri.
A key piece of energy legislation, supported by Empire District Electric Co. and other investor-owned electric utilities, also is being closely watched.
Discussion on what proponents characterize as the right-to-work issue began after a bill came before the House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee. That bill was proposed by state Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.
It would bar payment of union dues as a condition of employment and make Missouri the
nation's 25th right-to-work state. Under existing state law, employees working at union companies don't have to join the union but are required to pay dues and fees for the organization's main functions, such as collective bargaining, under the argument that nonunion employees benefit from union contracts.
If the legislature passes Burlison’s proposal — and even with a Republican supermajority that is uncertain — it would be placed before voters on an upcoming ballot. That would sidestep the need for Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature. Nixon, a Democrat, opposes the right-to-work bill.
The standing-room-only crowd that spilled into Capitol hallways Wednesday to watch the hearing included Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, House Speaker Tim Jones and Minority Leader Jake Hummel, an electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who participated in the hearing.
Republicans have upped their push for the policy in recent years. Last year, state Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, sponsored a similar measure in the House, and then-Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer sponsored it in the Missouri Senate, but the effort did not move, mainly because of opposition from then-House Speaker Steven Tilley.
Democrats are united against the change because of what it could do to the state’s union membership — a key constituency in Democratic politics. They claim the bill would allow "freeloaders," those who would benefit from union representation but not pay for those services. Union representatives said the legislation also would weaken the rights of workers and decimate the middle class.
"This legislation is about dividing and fracturing unity," Brian Kelley said Wednesday. He is the chairman of the Missouri legislative board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Boosting Missouri’s economy was a key part of the debate.
State Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, said three companies that he did not name chose not to move into his western Missouri district because the state does not have a right-to-work law.
Democrats argued there could be a variety of other economic factors that could cause a company to look elsewhere, including transportation infrastructure.
The committee did not vote on Burlison's measure Wednesday.
House Speaker Jones placed distance between himself and the right-to-work policy during a statewide tour last December before deciding to co-sponsor it in January.
Jones said in December that he was concerned about the political reality of what could be a tough vote for some moderate Republicans in his caucus. Going through the ballot process, however, eliminates the need for a supermajority to override a gubernatorial veto, allowing vulnerable Republicans to avoid the tough vote.
Jones’ high-profile flip is indicative of a reality in Missouri politics: A growing GOP bench of potential statewide candidates is beginning to make plays for 2016.
James Harris, a Republican consultant who leads Jones’ political campaign, said he believes the House will pass the bill and that it will be seen as a victory for conservatives, which could help Jones in a potential Republican primary.
“Under strong conservative leadership, the Missouri House has the unique opportunity to tackle some big issues facing our state. Passing right-to-work legislation is a logical starting point, as it will stimulate our struggling economy and in turn help improve our state's fiscal outlook,” Harris said.
In recent Missouri history, House speakers have not been able to garner support for statewide candidacies. Winning leadership races among members of one’s caucus is significantly different than winning primaries, where voters come from a wide array of political orientations.
Outside of leadership races, things such as legislative rankings also hold some sway. One of the leading ranking systems among conservatives is the American Conservative Union’s, which last week announced opposition to a piece of energy legislation that has support from most of the Senate Republican leadership team.
Senate Bill 207 would change state law to allow electric companies to ask the Missouri Public Service Commission for rate increases up to 10 percent a year in order to fund infrastructure projects through a surcharge. While subject to PSC review, it would not require the electric utility to initiate a full-blown rate case that can require 11 months.
Proponents argue that it removes regulatory barriers and will allow for additional investment in power generation, substations and distribution systems.
Water and natural gas utilities already have the authority to use the surcharge.
Ameren, an energy company that powers parts of eastern and mid-Missouri, is leading the effort to pass the bill. On Tuesday, Warner Baxter, chairman and CEO of Ameren, joined by a representative of Empire District Electric Co. in Joplin and Kansas City Power and Light, presented the legislation and urged lawmakers to allow the change.
“Our alliance is a true collaboration,” Baxter said. “We certainly need to invest in our aging infrastructure.”
The American Conservative Union, in a letter sent to lawmakers last week, said it plans to include SB207 as a key vote in its legislative ranking this year.
“Missouri’s electric companies are government-granted monopolies and are not real businesses in the sense that they have no competition and are guaranteed a profit by government regulators,” wrote Larry Hart, government relations director for the group. “There is never a good time to increase the burden on businesses and the citizens of Missouri, but this is the absolute worst time.”
Jones, who made energy a pillar of his “Triple E” legislative agenda (economic development, energy policy and education), has not explicitly come out in favor of the proposal. But Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, are listed as co-sponsors of the bill.
The emerging conservative opposition to the bill may make it one of the more important votes of the year in terms of future electoral politics.
Nixon, speaking with reporters Thursday in Columbia, brushed off a question about whether he would support the legislation, saying only that he wants to go down the path that keeps energy rates low and allows energy companies to expand their infrastructure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.